Tim Sloan /AFP/Getty Images
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listens during an Armed Forces Full Honor Review in his honor in 2006. Rumsfeld came out with a memoir last week titled Known and Unknown.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listens during an Armed Forces Full Honor Review in his honor in 2006. Rumsfeld came out with a memoir last week titled Known and Unknown. Tim Sloan /AFP/Getty Images
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches at the law school of the University of Maryland, writes about the law for The Root.
With no consequences — not even ostracism — for those involved in facilitating torture, they simply reappear, recast as book authors, experts and even potential heads of state. And each time we accept these individuals in their new guise, we mire ourselves further in the dirty business of torture, colluding in what has been a conspiracy of silence about the most heinous of human rights violations, and further undermining our international credibility.
Among the most devastating consequences of the U.S. failure to confront and punish torture is the way in which torture — long considered beyond the pale — has now been mainstreamed. Debates about whether torture "works" are conducted in polite company. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz contemplated further besmirching the office of president by proposing that rather than torture in secret, the president sign "torture warrants" that would authorize law enforcement to torture terrorism suspects in limited and exigent circumstances.
Efforts were made to redefine torture. Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and his superior Jay Bybee, who now sits as a federal judge (another successful Senate confirmation, despite clear evidence that he twisted the definition of torture to reach a universally condemned legal conclusion), suggested that torture is only that physical coercion that produces damage akin to "organ failure."
The term "harsh interrogation" entered the lexicon, driven by the acquiescent mainstream media, which was spoon-fed the phrase by Vice President Dick Cheney. For nearly a year, Bush apparatchiks successfully sent the mainstream media off on a wild-goose chase, seeking to answer the absurd question, "Is waterboarding torture?" Some reporters even submitted to waterboarding in an effort to "prove" that which has been well known for hundreds of years.
The only real question is whether the U.S. has the character and strength to hold accountable those at the highest levels of our government, military and CIA who participated in, authorized or sanctioned torture. And yet the years march on with no prosecution of higher-ups and seemingly little will to confront this cancer that eats away at our country's moral fiber and international reputation.
Of course, an even more painful truth is the fact that torture is not just an international issue. Two weeks ago, former Chicago Police Chief Jon Burge was sentenced by a federal judge to only four years in prison for lying about torture conducted by Chicago police officers who framed young black men for crimes. These were not one or two occasions of torture, but scores of incidents over the course of decades.
Black men held as criminal suspects had for years contended that police officers had suffocated and subjected them to electric shocks in order to produce false confessions. The lives of these men were stolen as they were sent to prison for decades — and in at least one case to death row — for crimes they had not committed. Burge's crime may deserve more than a four-year prison term (although the 63-year-old is reportedly suffering from prostate cancer), but it stands as a shameful reminder that no military command officer is serving even four years for the torture that occurred during the prosecution of the Bush "war on terror."
Ironically, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the man who organized Burge's successful prosecution, and who is best known as the dogged and successful special prosecutor in the Scooter Libby case, is also the special prosecutor designated by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate torture in CIA detention. But even that investigation is not focused on higher-ups in the Bush administration.
It's worth remembering that the U.S. anti-torture statute punishes not only torturers but also those who engage in conspiracy to torture. Just the attempt to prosecute high-level torture conspirators — even if ultimately unsuccessful — would serve as a statement of resolve and commitment to return America to respect for the rule of law.